Kiefaber to operate cinema at Rotunda

Senator Theatre owner signs 5-year lease for former Loews location

Could reopen by January

November 09, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

As part of a plan to shore up the Senator Theatre in North Baltimore, owner Thomas A. Kiefaber has signed an agreement to renovate and run the two-screen movie house at the Rotunda shopping center, which has been dark since Loews Corp. pulled out in March.

Kiefaber has a five-year lease and will reopen the theater as the two-screen Rotunda Cinematheque, perhaps as early as January. The owner of the historic theater on York Road says he'll gut the Rotunda space and bring it up to date in hopes that the addition of two screens under Senator management will strengthen his ability to compete as a small operator in a multiplex world.

"The Rotunda is an enormous opportunity," Kiefaber said, adding that he had been "coveting" the location for years. "I just thought the films were never presented there properly or promoted properly," he said.

Kiefaber, whose 62-year-old theater has developed a reputation among cinema perfectionists for technical quality, said he'll refurbish the Rotunda theater from projection booth to concession stand, including newer projectors, a new sound system and bigger screens. The auditoriums will be renovated so that sound from one won't be heard in the other and to keep light from pouring in when the doors are opened.

With wider aisles and roomier seats, the two renovated auditoriums will seat a combined 300 people, about 180 fewer than the capacity of the theater under Loews management.

Kiefaber expects to spend $330,000 on the job. Although the Senator was bailed out of overdue mortgage and tax payments by an anonymous benefactor last year, Kiefaber says the company's financial footing is sure enough to pursue the project.

His hope is that adding the two screens will put the Senator in a stronger position to negotiate with movie distributors, as Kiefaber would have the option of running a film longer by moving it from one screen to another. It's one of several competitive advantages a multiscreen theater has over single-screen operations, which are becoming increasingly scarce.

Kiefaber's gain comes at the expense of the Charles Theatre, a five-screen art movie house whose owners also made an offer to lease the theater from Manekin LLC, which manages the Rotunda.

Craig Scheiner, a vice president and regional manager for Manekin, said Kiefaber's proposal was chosen for several reasons, one of which was the selection of movies. The theater will continue to show the kind of art specialty films Rotunda patrons had come to expect - such as Chocolat, Life Is Beautiful and You Can Count on Me - but the mix will become more commercial under the new management.

"Tom was going to utilize the two screens a little better" than the Charles, says Scheiner. "Loews in the last seven or eight years just ran artsy movies. When they ran second-run movies, we would have more people coming to the mall. ... Economics is number one. Our thought is, it's a mall nobody knows about."

The theater project is part of a continuing $3 million renovation of the 30-year-old shopping center on West 40th Street, where several storefronts have been vacated during the past few years.

John Standiford, co-owner of the Charles, said he and his partner are disappointed but that competing with the Senator for movies will be better than competing with Loews. He said the national chain has an advantage with movie distributors over the Charles, much as Kiefaber says the General Cinema Towson Commons theater consistently blocks the Senator from its choice of first-run movies.

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